the Little Red Reviewer

The World of Null-A by A. E. van Vogt

Posted on: January 4, 2014

Vintage SF badgeNull AWorld of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt

serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1945, first published as a novel in 1948.

where I got it: purchased used, the 1970 printing.

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“The map is not the territory, the word is not the thing itself”

Gilbert Gosseyn has arrived in the great city of The Games to prove his Null-A training.  His wife Patricia Hardie recently passed away, but he knows this is what she would have wanted, for him to succeed at the The Games and win passage to Venus.  He’ll win for both of them.

During a meeting with other visitors, Gilbert is accused of not being who he says he is. But he passes a lie detector test with flying colors.  The year is 2560, lie detector computers are ubiquitous, and why in the hell would anyone lie about having been married to President Hardie’s daughter Patricia (who is very much alive, and very much unmarried)?

In the World of Null-A, the world of non-Aristotelian logic, there is never any reason to lie about one’s identity, never any reason to panic.  Among other things, Null-A mental training allows one to instantly adapt to changes in their environment, and Gilbert has been training his whole life for this.  But he was never prepared to not have any idea who he is.

He can trust only his memory, but what if your memory is wrong? Does our memory make us who we are? Does our brain and our memories tell us exactly how something happened, or only how we perceived that it happened? How do we get rid of the filter of our own perception?

The only thing smarter than those trained in Null-A is The Machine, a giant computer who runs The Games and the entire city in which the games take place. Gosseyn approaches The Machine as if he was just another game player, but the machine immediately knows this man is special. Gosseyn is advised to allow himself to be captured by President Hardie’s men (who assume he is a spy), so he can learn more about what is going on and hopefully free himself.

In the adventure that follows, Gosseyn is reunited with Patricia Hardie (or at least a Patricia Hardie is most certainly not his late wife), transported to Venus a handful of times, exposed to a conspiracy to murder thousands of Null-A followers living on Venus, gets killed, wakes up –

Wait, gets killed and wakes up?  That’s not possible.

Not only is Gosseyn’s memory lying to him, but it appears his body is too.  Many things are possible on Earth in the year 2560, but coming back to life in a similar body after being burned to death is not one of them.   Gosseyn eventually learns that he has extra brain matter that can be further trained towards the perfection of Null-A. One more thing that shouldn’t be possible.

The World of Null-A was to be A. E. van Vogt’s introduction to the masses of a non-Aristotelian world. The idea being, that if you understood the book, you understand Null-A, or as it’s also known, General Semantics.

I enjoyed reading the book, that’s for sure, but “the big idea” was completely lost on me. If the story was about identity and memory (and what to do if they don’t match up), there were so many questions Gosseyn could have asked, so many things he could have done, that he didn’t.  He followed The Machine’s instructions, allowed himself to be caught multiple times, and simply allowed things to happen around him.  What was holding him back? Does mastery of Null-A cause one to be so adapted to what’s happening, so at peace with everything, that they’re nearly incapable of actually *doing* something, even when their life is at stake?  Certainly this wasn’t written in the day and age of stories where the protagonist simply puts a gun to someone’s head and says “tell me what’s going on right now or I’ll blow your head off”, and Gosseyn isn’t that kind of person,  but still, I was disappointed by his lack of action.  In general, the characters felt very flat to me, and that dampened my feelings on the entire book. President Hardie has a good half dozen thugs who do his dirty work for them, and Gosseyn has discussions with all of them, but they all blended together for me.

There was also that left turn around two thirds of the way through when the aliens show up.

Yup, aliens.  Gosseyn isn’t a spy, but some other folks he’s been talking to are.  A member of The Galactic League has illegally built a transit base in our solar system.  The League has their eye on Earth and Venus, to see if Null-A is worth trying to promote elsewhere in the galaxy.    It was tough for me to take this portion of the story seriously, I think because it was introduced so late in the book. We’ve got this fast paced story, involving humans who live on Earth and on Venus, and they are dealing with challenges of the human brain, and suddenly aliens show up out of left field? It brought the enjoyable parts of the novel to a screeching halt for me.

The printing I have is the 1970 reprint, with Van Vogt’s introduction in which he describes the response when the story was first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1945. Like our modern day internet trolls, there were a small amount of readers who loudly criticized the story to anyone who would listen. One such critic, science fiction editor and critic Sam Moskovitz, recalled Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell as advising that confused readers give the story more time to sink in so they could understand it’s implications.  I guess I’m still waiting for it to sink in.

“The map is not the territory, the word is not the thing itself”

I really dig that line.  But I don’t think I’m getting out of it what Van Vogt wanted me to get out of it.

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4 Responses to "The World of Null-A by A. E. van Vogt"

Well, if you’re still waiting for this to sink in then I frankly don’t stand a chance – better avoid this one methinks! (Although you give a good description of what’s going on so you seem to understand it pretty well?)
Lynn :D

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Within a decade, it was considered a classic and one of the great SF novels of the period. Many of the reviewers of the time, mostly in Astounding and other SF-F digests, which is where the ones who had any clue wrote their reviews, were ambivalent or cautious at first, but soon, likely after re-reading, the book grew in stature.

I’ve read it twice, the first time just as a SF “adventure” story, and the aliens coming in wasn’t a surprise or a “hold everything!” so much as a “what took you so damn long, van Vogt?” reaction. The second reading, about 20 years later, was nearly like reading for the first time, but as I got along in it things began to tickle my memory. I just blew off the mental stuff as author’s justification for his plot and enjoyed myself. That said, I doubt I’ll read it again.

My advice to Lynn and any other new to van Vogt readers is to try “The Weapon Shops of Isher” before this one.

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Ohh, Semantics. I’m just starting to get into this myself, and it’s fascinating stuff, if all a little pretentious and woolly. Anyway, being a fully qualified geographer, allow me to point you in this direction regarding maps – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_map_is_not_the_territory Sounds like van Vought had been reading his Korzybski :)

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van Vogt mentions Korzybski by name in the introduction. Is that link going to hurt my already swiss cheese brain? I need Semantics for Dummies.

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